Jay Foster opens up this essay by talking about the Lifestream from Final Fantasy VII, but don’t be fooled. He’s mostly here to talk about the Spirits Within.
Jay Foster’s name is so generic as to make him practically ungoogleable, but the contributors section identifies him as “teach[ing] in the Department of
Philosophy at Memorial University of Newfoundland,” so this is one of our professional type philosophers. So was JK Miles, the mind behind Paragons and Knaves from Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy, so my expectations aren’t necessarily all that high. In this essay, he uses Final Fantasy VII’s Lifestream and the Gaia spirit from The Spirits Within to discuss environmental philosophy.
Gaia Theory in the actual real world is the idea that the entire planet is a single organism. We refer to humans and antelope and whatever as organisms because although we are made up of distinct organs, only collectively are those organs able to survive. Our kidneys clearly have a wholly distinct anatomy and metabolism to our heart, but the fact that our kidneys can only survive when physically plugged in to the rest of our body is what causes us to describe it as a component of an organism rather than an organism unto itself.
Like many definitions attempting to describe the natural world, this one runs into some edge cases where we basically say “okay, but it’s close enough.” How many organisms is a single starfish? You can slice one in half and two new starfish will regrow from the fragments. Does that mean it was actually two organisms all along? Aren’t there better ways to define an organism, like “a mass of organic material that is continuously connected and capable of reproduction?” Maybe (yes), but what’s important to this essay is how accurately that definition describes organs in relation to organisms rather than organisms to each other. An organ is an organic component of an organism unable to function or even survive without being attached to the organism. You can remove a kidney from a human and the human will live (you’ve still got the other kidney), but unless attached to a different human, the kidney will die. Small amounts of tissue die pretty quick when cut off from the rest of their organism, but are such a non-threat to the organism as a whole that nobody thinks anything of taking a tissue sample whenever it would be helpful to diagnosing a medical problem. That’s not a risky procedure to the organism at all despite being 100% fatal to the removed tissue.
Which brings us to Gaia Theory: Humans are each individually a component part of the world, and if you remove a single human from the world, the Earth’s greater ecosystem will not notice, but the human will rapidly die unless transplanted to another world also capable of supporting human life, like the kidney transplanted to a different human body. A colony on Mars or Luna would allow us to safely leave Earth, but only for specific destinations that have artificially been prepared to support human life in Earth-like conditions – no different from an artificial human shell created to keep kidneys functioning indefinitely when removed from a body. If your end goal is to keep as many kidneys alive as possible, it’d make sense to build as many of those as possible and transplant kidneys from dying humans into them, but it doesn’t change the fact that the kidney can’t survive without a compatible organism, or else an artificial replacement intentionally engineered to keep the kidney alive as though it were a compatible organism.
As such, could it not be said that humans are organs or tissue, a component part of the Earth’s ecosystem as a whole?
Some people prefer to posit humans as a disease that’s becoming “contagious” to other planets, but this doesn’t track. Bacterial diseases do not spread into corpses and cause them to spring to life, nor into animals of other species and transform them into humans. Diseases spread to healthy organisms of the same type and run them into the ground, humans spread to other planets and transform them into Earth-like replicas. A disease certainly doesn’t notice you’re in a gunfight, realize that its host is in potentially fatal danger and will take the entire bacterial population with you if you die, and begin working on methods of deflecting bullets to preserve their own life, which humans totally do with asteroids, a significantly greater threat to Earth’s biosphere than anything we’re getting up to. Despite the “we’re destroying nature!” crowd’s caterwauling, the actual environmental threat is that Earth will become uninhabitable to humans, but we’re still not gonna pull off anything nearly as devastating as some of the natural extinction events Earth has experienced, which cause several million years of devastation. The only way we could possibly compete with that is if we intentionally automated our entire economy to continue warming the Earth long after it had gotten hot enough to kill us all.
Humans could reasonably be described as cancerous, though, rogue organs who have begun expanding uncontrollably and extracting energy at an unsustainable rate, threatening to damage the organism as a whole, and stymied only by the fact that Earth’s biosphere is way more durable than we are, so if we don’t abort our cancerous behavior we will die long before the planet does.
Which actually leads to an important distinction between Earth-as-organism and most human-ish size organisms we’re familiar with: The Earth has had well over half its biodiversity wiped out five times and has bounced back each time. Imagine losing half of your organs or even just half of your total biomass multiple times and each time just regrowing back to a distinct but recognizably similar whole.
Jay discusses two different methods of interpreting Gaia Theory, and then recklessly applies those descriptions to the Lifestream where they don’t actually fit. The Lifestream is a literal stream of life-giving magic juice that circulates through the planet. It is analogous to the overall health of the real world planet, but the Lifestream literally gives life in that it imbues all newborn creatures with some kind of elan vital that allows them to live. Fossil fuels do not do this.
The two theories posited by Jay are holism, in which a whole can be greater than the some of its parts, and mechanism, in which a whole cannot have any property that at least one of its component parts does not also have. It’s not clear if he’s referring to how component parts can synergize in a way that allows them to produce results together that are far more impressive than what they could produce if they both worked separately and then simply combined their end results, or if he means that components working together can inexplicably develop new traits from nothing. The latter isn’t the stupidest thing a philosopher has ever posited, but I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt and assume he means the former, which basically just posits that completely removing one piece of a greater whole will damage the other pieces’ ability to function or survive, just like removing the stomach from an organism doesn’t merely reduce the organism’s ability to melt things it consumes, but causes every other organ to die, even if they’re completely intact and undamaged.
Ordinarily I’d look to his conclusion to shed more light on the subject, but his conclusion is that good guy ecoterrorists AVALANCHE believe in holism, and bad guy megacorporation Shinra believes in mechanism, and this is how that gets justified:
On the one hand, there is the holist conception of the Lifestream held by the members of AVALANCHE. Tifa Lockheart, Barret Wallace, and the other members of AVALANCHE conceive of the Lifestream as a living whole from which all of the living parts of the world derive their life. On the other hand, there is the mechanist conception of the Lifestream held by the employees of the Shinra Corporation, notably Professor Hojo and Scarlet. Much of the work of Shinra involves taking the
Mako extracted from the Lifestream and using it as a simple, interchangeable part for various experiments and projects. Professor Hojo experiments with combining Mako with Jenova cells, while Scarlet oversees the creation of Mako weapons.
The incompatibility of holist and mechanist conceptions of the Lifestream ultimately brings AVALANCHE into violent conflict with Shinra.
This doesn’t add up to anything. It’s basically just Jay trying to convince people that holism is right and mechanism is wrong without actually arguing the merits, and instead just making a tenuous connection between the bad guys and the position he dislikes. The actual root of the conflict between AVALANCHE and Shinra is that wealthy Shinra executives have enough money to shield themselves from the negative side effects of extracting the planet’s resources at an unsustainable rate and will all be dead before the apocalypse hits, whereas AVALANCHE fights for the common people who see little profit from the energy extraction but are bearing more and more of the brunt of its life-draining effects on the planet, and plus they care about the world their children will inherit.
There’s even a theme where Barrett, leader of AVALANCHE, has a daughter that he loves. I forget if he ever explicitly monologues to that effect, but the implication I got was that he was fighting Shinra principally for her benefit, so that she wouldn’t be left with a barren, empty world to starve to death in once he was gone. Shinra’s family politics, on the other hand, are vicious dynastic schemes in which the CEO is ultimately assassinated by his own son so that said son can seize power while the planet still has plenty of juice left to give up (EDIT: Thinking on it a few hours after this article was published, maybe it was Sephiroth that actually killed him, and the new CEO just gloated about it? Either way, the younger generation profited from the older one dying early in order to reap the benefits of Shinra’s rapacious extraction before the house of cards came down).
None of this has anything to do with holism as opposed to mechanism, and both are capable of supporting either side. A mechanist AVALANCHE views the planet’s resources as interchangeable but still finite and has the exact same concern for the common people and future generations as a holist AVALANCHE, while a holist Shinra is perfectly capable of understanding that extracting mako will take out a central hub of symbiosis between different elements of the biosphere and have knock-on effects that destroy the entire planet, and just not caring because they’ll be dead by the time that problem becomes insurmountable even to people with very large amounts of money. I didn’t replay Final Fantasy VII to write this article, so maybe AVALANCHE and Shinra explicitly take holist and mechanist perspectives on the planet in some dialogue I’ve forgotten, but it doesn’t matter, because the motivation behind their conflict is carried by entirely different elements of their philosophy, to the point where you can assign exactly the opposite philosophies to them as Jay has and still get the same conflict out of it.
Bear in mind, holism posits that people die when you remove their vital organs, even if their brain is completely unscathed, which is obviously true, and mechanism posits that this for some reason doesn’t apply to any complex systems except human bodies (and also anything else that obviously works holistically). So it’s not like I’m angry because Jay is associating a philosophy I like with the bad guys. I’m just pointing out that this association, if it even exists in the text, is actually incidental to the conflict.
After that we start talking about the Spirits Within, so I have to go not off of my years-old memories of my last playthrough, but completely off of what this essay claims, and what this essay claims is that the Earth does not, as it does in Spirits Within, have a literal conscious soul that takes direct action, but can still have a symbiotic combination of biological and chemical processes that cause it to naturally return to conditions favorable to a large and diverse biosphere. Life, uh, finds a way. As much as I’ve ragged on Jay for trying to paint holism vs. mechanism as inherently good and evil by flimsy associations with AVALANCHE and Shinra, I think his support of holism at the end here is actually far too conservative. I struggle to see what evidence there could possibly be that the Earth’s biological and chemical processes don’t naturally revert to conditions favorable to a large and diverse biosphere, because as mentioned earlier, five different times we’ve lost 70%+, and in one case ninety-six percent of all species, and the Earth has always bounced back. Are we supposed to believe that occurred through sheer dumb luck?
The only argument I could possibly see that the Earth’s biosphere doesn’t naturally seek to regenerate itself even from extreme damage is that it’s not the biosphere but just the favorable position of Earth in the solar system that constantly gives rise to more life no matter how much of it gets wiped out. It’s not that the biosphere preserves itself, it’s that we’re in the Goldilocks zone and we’ve got Jupiter around to suck in most of the asteroids headed our way and so forth. But a simple thought experiment proves this wrong, because if we successfully destroyed Earth’s biosphere, if we did completely automate our economy so that robot mines dug up materials for robot shipping companies to send to robot factories who produced goods that were bought by robot distribution companies who continued shipping them to our baked corpses long after we’re all dead, then the biosphere would not regenerate simply because the temperature was favorable. Global warming would go on until the oceans boiled away and all of Earth was inhospitable to life, and then that’s it. We’re as dead as Venus.
So, sure, there’s no Gaia spirit consciously directing the reconstruction, but the individual elements of Earth’s biosphere all want to survive, and are incentivized by one another’s presence to specialize into different ecological niches where there’s less competition, and that allows the biosphere to recover from even extreme amounts of damage. The Earth’s biosphere naturally regrows to cover the entire planet – and if we manage to send rockets to Mars before launching them at each other, that biosphere could spread to the entire solar system and beyond. With humanity spread out across multiple planets and bringing all of Earth’s biodiversity with us, we can transform the lifeless husks around us into not replicas, but extensions of our own biosphere, making us even more resilient to annihilation, that even absolute planet crackers that leave Earth physically dismembered will be unable to destroy the life born there. Even if the artificial habitats on other worlds require human intervention to be maintained, so what? We’re part of Earth’s biosphere. Our actions are the Earth’s actions. We are the catalyst that allows Gaia to assimilate other worlds.